When we think of runners, we often picture a lean individual with six-pack abs and almost no body fat. Many people begin running in order to lose weight and even more people will quickly hop on the distance-running bandwagon with hopes of achieving this ideal “runner’s body.” For so many years, we were sold the myth that cardio is the ultimate way to lose weight — and what type of cardio is better than running, right?
We now know that cardio is not, in fact, the best way to lose weight, and while running can help you quickly drop some pounds in the beginning (especially if you have extra weight to lose), it can actually actually be detrimental to weight loss when used as the only tool.
While runners at the elite level do almost always do have that “runner’s body” we envision, this is not an accurate representation of what most runners actually look like. In fact, when training at long distances, it actually becomes pretty hard to keep weight off, and it can be even difficult to not gain weight. This is especially true for females. This is for a few reasons. First, a lot of runners often get caught up in the “calories in vs. calories out” fallacy of thinking. Running can definitely torch a lot of calories, that can’t be argued, but it is all too easy to think, “I ran 15km today, therefore I can eat all this pizza and drink six beers”. Yes, running burns a lot, but running also requires a lot of energy and it is important to re-fuel with the right food, it isn’t an excuse to eat everything in sight. Many people fall into the trap of thinking that they must carb load and it can be way too easy to over-do it. It is also too easy to overestimate the number of calories an individual burns in a run.
Secondly, running long distances can trigger our body to release excess amounts of the stress hormone, cortisol. While stress can be a good thing in small amounts, over time excess cortisol can lead to chronic stress. Chronic stress can impact insulin resistance and will tell your body to hold on to its reserves, resulting in weight gain. Thirdly, a lot of recreational distance runners are not engaging in intense cardiovascular exercise required to lose weight. For amateur runners, the goal is often to just get to the finish and training can often be about just getting the miles in instead of speed. This is not a bad thing and running long, slow distances can definitely be taxing, but most runners are not actually running at a vigorous effort level. Our bodies quickly adapt to this and will not drastically change without bursts of higher intensity. This is exactly the reason why high intensity interval training (H.I.I.T.) is the ideal way to train.
If you want to run but also are looking to lose weight, the best way to go about it with running is to incorporate both speed work and strength training into your routine. Try swapping out one run a week for a solid strength session. Strength training helps your body burn more calories when you are not active, especially H.I.I.T. strength training. It can also play a crucial role in injury prevention for runners by building up muscles that can help make you a better runner. Incorporating speed work into your training will not only help you become a faster runner but will also help you achieve weight loss goals. Speed training doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply incorporate some HIIT work (periods of fast running intermixed with periods of slower running) into a long run or hit the track for some interval work- i.e. running shorter distances at a near-maximum or maximum effort with short recovery times in between.
That being said, if running is your sport of choice and truly makes you happy, do not let this deter you from chasing down your goals and embracing your identity as a runner. It is so important that we put our energy into exercise that makes us feel good, excites us, and keeps us inspired. We have to remember to focus on all the other benefits of exercise beyond the desire to look a certain way — good heart health, reduced anxiety and depression, increased energy, better sleep, etc. We need to stop seeing exercise as a means to an end, or as a chore that must be done, or as a punishment for indulgence.
Body image is so much more than a number on a scale or six-pack abs. The mental and personal benefits of exercise are immeasurable. Participating in a sport that you love can be so empowering. It can help you feel strong, powerful, calm, confident and bad-ass all at once. It can inspire positivity, confidence and determination that can impact so many other areas of life. Feeling awesome will automatically help you look awesome, too, because these emotions will radiate from the inside out and infect others, regardless of what the scale says. Exercise is far more than a means to look a certain way. No matter what your goals are, keep this in mind. The sooner we stop exercising for one reason and one reason only, the quicker we will see it have a positive impact all around.